Under Trump, Americans take a lesser seat at the table for climate talks

Climate change leaders will gather at the Climate Change Conference in Bangkok, the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco and Climate Week in New York this month. (Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty)

Three international climate conferences are taking place this month, in Bangkok, San Francisco and New York — all precursors to the United Nations’ main climate change convention in December.

COP24 is the informal name given to the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which will be held Dec. 3-14 in Katowice, Poland. National representatives will work on adopting a series of decisions to ensure the full execution of the Paris Agreement’s goal: limiting the increase in average global temperature to below 2°C.

Though the U.S. was a major player during 2015’s Paris negotiations (COP21), President Trump’s plan to pull out of the international accord has drastically changed the equations and Americans are expected to have a diminished role at future meetings. But the U.S. isn’t out yet, so it still has a seat at the table — albeit, a smaller one.

The Paris Agreement’s 28th article allows any country to withdraw from the Paris Agreement three years after it enters into force for that party. This means Trump can submit the United States’ withdrawal in November 2019 and it would take effect in 2020. Critics consider the agreement too costly and ineffective, whereas supporters think withdrawal effectively forfeits the country’s leadership in developing the clean-energy economy of the future.

Either way, here are the places American climate hawks are looking to make progress on climate cooperation — with or without help from the White House.

Bangkok Climate Change Conference (Sept. 4-9)

Environmental activists protest at the U.N. Conference Centre in Bangkok on Tuesday, the first day of the  Climate Change Conference. (Photo: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

The Climate Change Conference is taking place at the United Nations Conference Centre (UNCC) in the capital of Thailand. It is expected to be the last highly detailed and technical negotiating session on implementing the rules of the Paris Agreement before Poland: What kinds of data should countries provide? How will they file reports? Will they be independently verified? How will developed countries help developing countries meet their goals?

Alden Meyer, the director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists and the director of its office in Washington, D.C., said these meetings can often veer into politically charged issues despite their technical nature. For example, he said, big developing countries like China and India don’t want much independent verification of domestic actions on climate change and energy policy.

“They want maximum flexibility. They don’t want to come up quickly to the developed countries frequency and robustness on climate reporting, so that will be a challenge,” Meyer told Yahoo News.

Though U.S. representatives are in attendance, Meyer said they are effectively negotiating “with one hand tied behind their backs.”

“The U.S. doesn’t have much leverage in these talks except for the fact that other countries understand that if you want the U.S. to reverse itself on withdrawing from Paris or to come back in after the next president, you need to make sure the rules are U.S.-friendly,” Meyer said.

For rules to be U.S.-friendly, they would require all countries to live up to certain standards — not just developed countries. This is particularly true regarding China. Meyer said U.S. policy and positions on this matter have been consistent across the last several administrations: Clinton, Bush and Obama all didn’t want climate agreements to have separate categories for developed and developing countries.

“I think other countries understand there are some permanent interests of the U.S. in this process that will be there after Trump leaves office. If they want the U.S. to stay in or come back in, they need to be aware of those interests as they negotiate the rules,” Meyer said.

Of course, the United States is not alone in its position. Japan and Europe also want consistent rules across the board.

Activists protest in on Bangkok Tuesday. (Photo: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

During a speech opening the Bangkok talks, Fiji Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, who is president of COP23, said governments are not prepared for Katowice and that this should come as no surprise to anyone in the room. He said without proper guidelines countries risk “chaos” and “yet another delay” at Katowice.

The U.N. had not originally planned for the conference in Bangkok but added it to the schedule because the parties did not make as much progress as they had hoped at the Bonn conference in April. This is expected to be the last technical planning session before Poland.

Global Climate Action Summit 2018 in San Francisco (Sept. 12-15)

A week after Bangkok’s conference, California will host the Global Climate Action Summit to celebrate the achievements of private citizens, companies and subnational governments (states, regions, cities) in fighting climate change and encourage more to take up the mantle. There will be hundreds of affiliate events — including panels, workshops and exhibits — throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The outcome from that week in San Francisco will be a call to action from subnational governments, the business community and others for national governments to join them in ratcheting up their climate ambitions,” Meyer said.

In many ways, this conference will be a chance for nonprofit groups, local governments, companies and individuals to carve out a place for Americans to take part in the efforts to realize the Paris Agreement by increasing their own commitments to decarbonization.

Jake Schmidt, the director of Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) International program, said that in some ways San Francisco will be an even bigger political moment than Poland.

“It’s supposed to build momentum for encouraging countries to strengthen their climate targets over time,” Schmidt told Yahoo News. “It’s intended to show the market is moving, states and cities are moving, and therefore countries are in a much better position in the next year or two to go even further than they committed to in Paris.”

Alden Meyer, policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Jennifer Morgan, the group’s climate and energy director, at a climate meeting in Japan in 2008. (Photo: Koji Sasahara/AP)

He said San Francisco will also demonstrate to the international community that the rest of the United States is continuing to move forward on climate action regardless what happens in Washington.

Climate Week NYC (Sept. 24-30)

Climate Week is an annual summit hosted by the Climate Group, the United Nations and the City of New York that coincides with the U.N. General Assembly. The gathering capitalizes on the fact that many heads of state and ministers for climate change are already in the city.

The Opening Ceremony is one of the year’s most important climate change events and attracts people who can set policy on climate action and influence markets. It sets the agenda for the rest of the week, which will also feature dozens of affiliate events around New York.

Trump will likely be in town to speak to the U.N. General Assembly, but it’s unlikely that he will address climate change or participate in Climate Week events in any substantive way. This does not negate contributions from other Americans.

American leadership: Then and now 

The United States was central to nearly every critical issue that brought the Paris Agreement to fruition. And this status could still be salvaged if Trump’s successor were to reverse course. French President Emmanuel Macron has said he thinks the U.S. will reenter the accord.

Although the U.S. is the only country to have announced its withdrawal from the climate accord, no country is doing enough to fight global warming, according to the Climate Change Performance index. Even France, which outperformed every other nation in the index, is being criticized.

On Aug. 28, the country’s famous environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, abruptly resigned on French public radio, saying that the country has not been doing enough on climate change and lamenting his lack of ability to change that.

Nicolas Hulot speaks at the Ministry of Ecology in Paris on Sept. 4, a week after he resigned as France’s environment minister. (Photo: Daniel Pier/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“I no longer want to lie to myself,” Hulot said. “I don’t want to create the illusion that my presence in government means that we’re up to standard on these issues, and so I am deciding to quit the government.”

Of course, international agreements are imperfect by their very nature. There are inherent limitations to getting every country on the same page. Even the strongest treaties have limited enforcement capabilities and varying degrees of commitment from ever-changing national leaders.

Meyer, of NRDC, said the Obama administration did virtually everything it could to make sure there was an agreement that would satisfy the demands of the U.S., but that we’ve seen the exact opposite trajectory from the Trump administration.

“It’s as if we went from the U.S. being at the center of the universe to the U.S. spinning off of the orbit and maybe heading towards a black whole,” Meyer said.

But there may be a silver lining for the United States. According to Meyer, without the U.S. at the forefront, we’re starting to see greater leadership from other nations. Countries in Africa and Latin America, which are endangered by climate change, are calling on China and India to do more.

“Hopefully, the long-term, glass half full perspective is that this effort by the Trump administration will create even stronger conditions for better climate action in the years to come because we’ll have more leaders stepping up to plate,” Meyer said. “We’ll be looking at a world where when the U.S. steps back in the game, it will be pushing on an even more open door.”

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